A boy from Czechoslovakia spent two years learning English so he could translate and respond to a message in a bottle he found.

Gabriel Fabian, 12, discovered the bottle just three months after it was launched from Bridlington in the UK. However, he didn’t respond until two years later so he could practice his English skills before writing to the sender.

The bottle was launched in May 2011 by Eden and Tommy Shearman, aged ten and seven, and their cousin Lilly-May Tingle, seven, while they were on holiday with their aunt and uncle, Deborah and Andrew Pickles. The trio each wrote a message and put it in a bottle, along with some coins, before throwing it off the Yorkshire cliffs into the sea below. When they didn’t hear anything back after a few months, they thought no more about it.

Little did the cousins know that their bottle had been discovered on a beach in Denmark just a few months later. Gabriel was on holiday in the country and he and his mum had visited the beach to help clean it. As they went through the litter lining the shore in Blokhus, Jammerbugten, they stumbled upon the bottle with its messages safe inside.

Two years later Gabriel sent an email to the Pickles. In it, he explained: “I couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t answer you. Later I started to study in an international school and now my English is okay.” He added that he would have liked to respond by putting a message in a bottle, but that the wind would “just push it back into Denmark”. Gabriel told the cousins he wanted to keep in touch, and added that he really liked England, having once been on a school trip to the country.

The children’s aunt Deborah Pickles said they had all been “completely astounded” when they received a reply two years after launching the bottle. Indeed, she and her husband had never expected a reply and had come up with the project to keep the kids entertained for the day. Now, Eden Shearman plans to write to Gabriel as a pen pal.

Gabriel’s dedication to perfecting his English skills before responding is admirable. However, in the UK, foreign language proficiency among school children is below the international average. The European Survey on Language Competences revealed that the UK was lagging behind other countries for performance in its two most commonly-taught languages: French and German. This may have something to do with foreign languages not being compulsory among English students studying their GCSEs.

Meanwhile, Languages: the State of the Nation, a review by the British Academy, revealed there is a shortage of language skills in the UK. As a result, many of the country’s businesses have vacancies they cannot fill because of a shortage of applicants who have language skills.

Tom Sherrington, head teacher at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, noted that more time needs to be dedicated by schools to teaching languages than the two hours currently stipulated by the Department for Education. In an article for the Guardian’s Teacher Network, he claimed the actual teaching style currently employed also needs to change to boost skills. “Too often I’ve seen lessons in very good schools where students might learn a list of colours in isolation but could not say ‘the sky is blue’,” he claimed. As a result, English students may find it hard to string the words they have learned together in order to form sentences and make conversation.

Perhaps setting up pen pal schemes with children who speak a different mother tongue could be one way to improve English kids’ language skills. Not only will they have someone who speaks the language as their mother tongue to practice on, but they will also get used to reading and writing in that language. Of course, they could make a lifelong friend too!